Authors: Mercy Celeste
“Back him up, Will. He’s a good man. He’s a good player. Two years of making him pay dues is too much. He’s already earned everything, man. Just do that for me. They’re both good men. They don’t deserve shit like we heaped on Bo that first year. Just take care of him. And the new kid. Like you did me.”
“Come on, man, you’re talking like it’s the end.” There was a long pause. “You have people with you, right? Someone to take care of you? Don’t want to hear that you decided to eat your gun or something over this.”
“I don’t have a gun. And yeah, I got people here. Jude is around here somewhere.”
“So you’re back in Alabama, man, not good for you. You need to go somewhere tropical, with women in bikinis, find a beach to lie on and heal. Some Tahitian miss to take care of what ails you. Anything but fucking 'Bama.”
Levi pinched the bridge of his nose. Yeah, anywhere but fucking 'Bama. “I’m okay here. It’s not like it was. I’m okay.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t sound like it.”
“I just woke up. Give me a break. I slept off a couple of four am pain pills. I haven’t even taken a piss yet.”
“Then go piss. And Levi, when I get a break, I’m coming to check on you.”
“I’ll see you then.”
Levi disconnected and tossed the phone onto the nightstand just as another text message came through. He ignored the phone and went to do exactly what he’d just told Slayer he needed to do. Jude could leave him the fuck alone. He paid him enough to keep his shit away from him. What more did he want? A god damned monument down in the city park? Probably. Who the hell knew with Jude?
First week of summer camp down. Fucking hot and miserable, Tracy stumbled into the bar and grill near his house for a steak and a beer and to let the frustration slide off his shoulders. Fucking Brody was a no-show. After all that, he just didn’t show up. And Tracy would be damned if he tracked him down. He didn’t need that shit. Not in the slightest.
He had three schools worth of kids trying to forget that they were one-time rivals. Two years into the new school situation and this shit was still going on. The boys from Amberdale were the worst. Their school was torn down over the summer. Completely gone. All of the memories from the small town just that now, memories. Those kids wouldn’t graduate from the place they came from, the school their parents and in some cases, grandparents graduated from. The sad reality of the disappearing small town was lost on them. All ten of them out of a hundred boys. Forty from his former school and fifty from Summerville. All rivals. All testosterone and piss.
It was late when he walked through the door, he knew the grill would be closed but he also knew the owner and a little extra would get him a steak and some fries. Just because. He nodded to Jack as he slunk onto a stool at the bar. The place was nearly empty for a Friday night. One guy at the bar watching ESPN on mute, a couple dancing to country music, and a group of overgrown adolescents shooting pool and making enough noise to make the place feel overcrowded.
Jack set a cold bottle of beer in front of him with a nod. “The usual? To go?”
“I’ll take it here. Too tired to go.” He tilted the bottle back and sighed. “Thanks, man.”
“Anytime, Coach.” Jack smiled and glanced to the other end of the bar and the man sitting in profile. Tracy didn’t recognize him. Ball cap pulled low over his face, he seemed like he wanted to be left the hell alone.
“Small crowd tonight.” Tracy motioned to the empty rooms, trying to keep his attention off the tattooed arm peeking out from beneath the shirtsleeve of his fellow bar patron.
“School starts back in a couple weeks, you know how it is. If they have kids or work for the system, they are all down at the beach for the weekend.” Jack wiped down the area behind the bar and passed Tracy a second beer. “Too damned hot to be anywhere else.”
“I hear ya. Spent all day in the sun. I’m just looking for someplace dark and cold for the rest of the weekend.”
Jack nodded in sympathy and left him alone to go check on his order. A few more regulars trickled in while Tracy waited. Someone clapped him on the shoulder and said "hey, Coach" but Tracy didn’t know the guy, so he just nodded. Sometimes, he just wanted to be anonymous. Was that too much to ask?
His steak and fries came in a few more minutes. He slathered the medium rare slab of meat with steak sauce and inhaled. A third beer took the place of his empty plate just as someone turned the sound on the TV up.
“Turn that shit down. Or off. Off would be good.” Faceless hat guy from across the bar growled at the bartender, his words slightly slurred.
“Nah, leave that shit on, looks like the asshole got what was coming to him, turn it up.” One of the guys at the pool table shouted from across the room.
Tracy tuned into the latest football news. The hosts were rehashing the press conference from over in New Orleans. Holy fuck, Brody was cut. Just like that. Cut.
The announcement by New Orleans today pretty much took everyone off guard. Injured quarterback Levi Brody let out of his contract as of today. No other details. We’ve so far been unable to contact Brody or his representatives. A sad, sad state at such a late date….
“Turn it off!” The guy at the end of the bar slammed his empty glass down and stood. Tracy caught a glimpse under his hat and forgot to fucking breathe. No wonder they couldn’t find Levi Brody, he was busy getting drunk in his hometown.
“Bet he’s off getting a blow job from that lousy fag they let play on the team. What a disgrace.” One of the pool table boys shouted at the TV. “Go look for him in Murphy’s bed.”
Tracy lunged off the stool and had Brody around the waist before he’d made more than a couple of steps. “Easy. They’re just assholes. Easy,” he said softly, pulling the long lean quarterback away from the commotion.
“Fuck off.” Levi turned to look at Tracy as he shoved him off. “Nobody talks about Bo that way and gets away with it.”
“Come on, Levi, it’s the booze talking. You don’t want to do this.” Tracy caught the pain in the smaller man’s golden-toned eyes. The despair he saw there punched him in the gut.
“No, I really do want to do this. Can’t even come into town without a bunch of assholes…” he stumbled slightly. Tracy wouldn’t say he was actually drunk. But definitely getting there.
“How much has he had?” Tracy tuned out the posturing and dragged Levi back to the bar while the gang of assholes kept on slinging slurs. At least they hadn’t figured out who they were shouting at…yet.
“Too many, Coach, I was getting ready to call his brother.” Jack jingled a set of keys and nodded to the former star. “I get it now. Feel bad for him.”
“Don’t. I don’t need your fucking pity. I don’t need anyone’s pity.” Belligerent and mostly drunk. Oh yeah, exactly how Tracy wanted his first meeting with the hometown hero to play out.
“You need something. A good kick in the ass, mostly. And to sleep it off.” Tracy hauled him in again, noting the tightly coiled body under the jeans and T-shirt. And not in the way he should. For a has-been, the man was fucking cut.
“Who asked you?” Brody turned to poke him in the chest. He had to look up to meet Tracy’s eyes, and that didn’t seem to sit well with him either. “Who the fuck are you anyway? Coach? Coach of what? Pee Wee league? Haul it back to the kiddies, son, and let me the fuck alone.”
“Jesus, and here I thought I was being nice. You really are a prick. Have fun. Later, Jack.” Tracy let the drunk go, and he stumbled, golden eyes going owlish as he stared at him. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” Levi said, looking quickly away. His face flaming up. His hands shook. He squeezed his right hand a couple of times and shook it. “You look familiar. I guess. I don’t know. Don’t know what I’m doing here either. Just wanted something to eat.”
Tracy peeled a couple of twenties out of his wallet and handed them over to Jack. “Will that cover his and mine?”
“Keep it. It’s all on the house. Just take him home before he does something stupid.” Jack refused the money, his sad gaze going to the other man.
“Yeah. Sounds easier said than done. Come on, Hot Shot, let’s get you someplace not here.” Tracy placed one hand on the former quarterback’s shoulder and watched as he flinched, a hint of pain crossing his face before he could control his reaction. And that would explain everything. “Sorry. I didn’t know. Come on, Levi. I’ll take you home.”
He expected the man to shrug him off or cuss him out. He didn’t expect his shoulders to sag. “Yeah, guess that’s about all that’s left, isn’t it?”
Tracy didn’t know what to say. He could feel the anguish emanating off the man. He led him out in silence, the humid night air not pleasant after the air conditioning inside. July, what in hell possessed him to want to coach football in the middle of fucking summer? God damn.
“It’s still hot as cunt out here.”
“Would be worse in New Orleans. It seems cool to me. Smells better at any rate.” Brody followed him to the 90s model Cherokee Tracy doted on. “This yours?”
“I’m sure it’s not what you’re used to, but it gets me around.” He didn’t mean for it to sound like a jibe. Back when they were kids, Levi drove a hot as hell sixties era Mustang. The man and the car were legendary.
“Nothing wrong with classics,” he grunted more than said as he slid into the passenger seat. Tracy grabbed his bag of gym clothes off the floorboard and threw them into the back before closing the door and sliding in the driver’s side.
“My dad bought it new. I bought it from him when he wanted to upgrade to a Dodge. Got a lot of memories in this old thing.” He wasn’t going to tell Levi Brody about losing his virginity on the tailgate—oh hell and bother, just shut up.
“Must have been nice.” Brody slumped against the window and closed his eyes.
“You going to puke? Because if you are, let me know and I’ll pull over.” Tracy drove out of the parking lot and headed west on the highway before he realized he didn’t know where Levi lived.
“Not that drunk. Just keep driving until you find Jude’s mansion and turn there."
Ah, the McMansion out on state road was Jude Brody’s monstrosity. Must be nice to build your brother a big house just because you could—oh hell, at least he didn’t say that. “I was wondering who lived there.”
Levi laughed, Tracy didn’t know if it was something he’d said. “It’s hideous. But it’s his money, so what you gonna do? Just glad I don’t have to live in it.”
From what little of Jude Brody Tracy knew, the man couldn’t be much more than twenty-five or twenty-six. He’d become a lawyer sometime in the past couple of years and moved home to put out his shingle instead of practicing up in Montgomery or Birmingham. Big fish in a small pond mentality was Tracy’s best guess.
“I didn’t say it was ugly. Just that I didn’t know who lived there.”
“But it is ugly. He wanted a castle; the boy is nuts.” Levi shrugged, his voice mirthless, leaning toward condescending. “So you never answered the question, where do you coach?”
No, he wasn’t that drunk, not if he remembered that much. “I thought being a pee wee coach was beneath your standards.”
Brody looked over at him, a passing car illuminating his eyes. All Tracy saw was weariness. The asshole from earlier gone now that he was without an audience. “Gotta start somewhere. And if you can stand a bunch of ankle biters in pads, hey, you have my respect.”
“Well, that’s nice to know.” Tracy saw the brick mailbox up ahead and hit his turn signal. He’d be relieved when he dumped the man on his brother. Maybe. “Except I’m coaching over at the high school. I took the job when Richards retired three years ago.”
“Ah. Well, then you have my pity. Can’t be easy running a program with the team trying to kill each other.” This time there was humor in his voice. But the drive was pitch black, Tracy had to concentrate on the narrow road leading through the small forest of pines, he couldn’t spare another glance at his passenger. “When you get to the fork in the road, so to speak, stay right, don’t make the turn over to the big house.”
If he weren’t right about the ongoing warfare between his consolidated players, Tracy would be pissed. But Brody was unfortunately correct. “You have no idea. Maybe this year they’ll get their shit together and show me something. If not, it’ll be the middle school kids who put us back on the road to winning. And, dude, I don’t have that much patience.”
The bark of laughter from the dark rippled over his skin like a caress. Damn, the man had a sexy laugh. One that had Tracy trying to get his body under control. Hard fucking body and a sexy laugh. Not something he wanted to know right now.
He stayed to the right when the asphalt veed off and then disappeared completely, leaving him to navigate a rutted two trail lane on a moonless night. “Where the fuck do you live? A deer blind?”
“Close enough,” came the reply just as his headlights flashed over a metal tube sitting just this side of a copse of oak trees. There was no humor in his words now.
Levi climbed out of the truck without waiting for him to come to a complete stop and stumbled over his feet. Okay, so Tracy didn’t expect to find out the hometown boy most likely to play in the NFL lived in a single wide. He didn’t know what to do. Levi was home. Mission accomplished. But it was dark as fuck out here, and the man was drunk.
And incredibly well-coordinated for drunk. Watching him cross the yard in the headlights was a lesson in torture. Tight jeans hugged the man’s ass and thighs, long lean legs with heavy muscles lived under that denim. He put his hand on the gearshift and started to reverse out of the yard, because this was dangerous territory, watching Levi Brody move and wondering what those long damn legs would feel like…he stumbled on the bottom step of the narrow rail-less stairs, going down on his knees. Tracy put the car in park and turned off the engine. He didn’t leave the lights on.
Inky dark settled around him, but he could see the lights in the windows, it was enough. He found Levi’s left arm and gently wound his arm around the man’s waist. “Come on, I got you.”
“They cut me last week. My arm is fucked up, and it doesn’t matter. I’m all used up.” He didn’t stand, and Tracy didn’t force him to. This wasn’t a drunk. This was grief.